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Ottawa on track for yet another high-speed rail study

(The following story by Robert Benzie appeared on the Toronto Star website on February 25, 2009.)

TORONTO — All aboard – all over again.

It has been repeatedly studied for decades, but Ottawa, Queen's Park and the Quebec government are spending $3 million to probe the feasibility of a high-speed rail link between Quebec City and Windsor.

The three governments announced the EcoTrain Consortium – composed of Dessau, MMM, KPMG, Wilbur Smith & Associates, and Deutsche Bahn International – will study the proposed 1,200 kilometre line.

"We have jointly, the three of us, commissioned a report," Premier Dalton McGuinty told reporters yesterday. "I like it because it fights climate change, it fights traffic congestion, so it enhances our productivity levels, it creates jobs and it enhances our quality of life."

There have been at least 16 studies or attempts to study a proposed rail link since 1973.

The international consortium will look at route options; the high-speed trains available; transportation demand forecasts; and development, operating and land expropriation costs, among other issues. It will report back in one year.

McGuinty and Quebec Premier Jean Charest have been aggressively lobbying Prime Minister Stephen Harper to climb aboard their high-speed rail bandwagon.

"I continue to be a big fan of (a high-speed link). As does Jean Charest. The Prime Minister is not as much a fan on this score," the Ontario premier said, adding that such a project can't be undertaken without a major federal contribution.

McGuinty pointed to a recent report on Ontario's economic future prepared by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and U.S. urban guru Richard Florida that urged such megaprojects.

"One of the things that the Martin-Florida report spoke to was the need to enhance our connectivity ... for purposes of growing the economy," said McGuinty. "So it does all those things, which is why I think it's a worthwhile project."

Conceding that other major feasibility studies have been done, Ontario Transportation Minister Jim Bradley said this one is needed "because the statistics and information that is there, available to the federal government and the two relevant provincial governments, is out of date."

A 1995 study done by the same three governments pegged the cost then at $18.3 billion. Even accounting just for inflation, that would have meant $23.9 billion today.

That earlier review concluded a system similar to France's 300 km/h TGV (train ΰ grande vitesse) would draw passengers away from cars and airlines, slashing energy consumption related to intercity travel by 20 per cent and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Travelling at twice the speed of VIA Rail's current express trains, the TGV-style system would take just two hours and 18 minutes to travel from Union Station in Toronto to Montreal's Gare Centrale – down from four hours.

In Ottawa, federal Transport Minister John Baird stressed that such a venture would be a long-term public works project – well beyond the time frame of current recession-fighting measures.

"If there's any news that it could begin construction within the next two years, I'd certainly welcome any thoughts. That's a gigantic $20 billion or $30 billion project," Baird told the Commons. "I don't think it would be able to be ready in the next two years to provide important economic stimulus."

Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton blasted the federal Conservatives and provincial Liberals for delaying the inevitable.

"They're going to study it again? You don't need to study it again. The biggest issue is purchasing all of the land and purchasing some of the rail bed that belongs to CN or CP that you need to make this run," said Hampton.

"Everybody wants to study it because they think it will give them a good headline. We're long past the study stage. Where's the money to start doing it?"

Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees (Newmarket-Aurora) expressed concern that the high-speed rail link would be used to deflect attention from the less sexy transportation projects the provincial government has been ignoring.

"Before they start musing about that, they should get on with the priority projects that they've allowed to fall off the radar screen that affect what's going on in our day-to-day lives here," said Klees.

"Let's get on with fixing gridlock in the GTA, let's get on with all the projects like the extension of (Highway) 404, the 427, the 410, the Bradford Bypass. Let's get on with all of our border-crossing projects that seem to be going nowhere," he said.

"We've got a lot of projects that they should be preoccupying their time with and getting on with as opposed to dreaming about something else that is totally irrelevant to today's reality."

Friday, February 27, 2009

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